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Pennsylvania sees five new coronavirus deaths

Pennsylvania recorded five new coronavirus deaths Thursday, taking the total number of victims to 16 as the number of cases has skyrocketed in the state.

The number of statewide cases of the virus rose since Wednesday by 560, taking the total Thursday to 1,687.

“The reality is we’re just seeing the beginning of this crisis,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a 2 p.m. briefing on the state’s response to COVID-19. “We must prepare ourselves to be in this for the long haul.”

“We have seen case counts continue to increase, and the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home,” health Secretary Rachel Levine said.

Wolf announced Thursday that he would make $50 million in transfers of state funding to purchase medical equipment and supplies for hospitals, nursing homes and emergency workers who are on the front lines dealing with the pandemic.

“We need more beds, more ventilators, more personal protective equipment, and so much more, and we need it as soon as possible because the virus is here,” Wolf said.

Levine said the state has distributed hundreds of thousands of supplies to hospitals, health systems, health-care providers, counties and emergency responders. The supplies included masks, gloves, gowns and goggles.

“This underscores the need for us to stay home as much as possible,” Levine said.

Wolf said the virus has the ability to hide for 14 days.

“We must act ask if we all have it,” Wolf said.

Washington County had a dozen cases of the virus, an increase of two since Wednesday, state records show. Greene County added another positive case, taking its total to three. The cases doubled in Fayette County to eight positive cases. Westmoreland County showed 24 cases, up from 16 Wednesday.

Allegheny County recorded 45 new cases of coronavirus Thursday morning as the number of patients with the virus was expected to increase statewide.

The county’s health department said there were 133 positive cases of the virus in Allegheny, that 20 of those patients were hospitalized.

The 20 hospitalized patients were not straining the Allegheny’s hospitals, but that could change if there is surge in cases, the county said.

There were no additional deaths in that county from the virus that has killed two people there, the department said.

Ten counties remained under stay-home orders, including Erie and Allegheny. The number of tests that showed negative results were 16,441.

Levine said 170 of the positive cases statewide required hospitalization, and that 32 of them needed ventilators since the first positive case of COVID-19 was recorded in the state March 6.

Meanwhile, Wolf said he also asked the state Department of Agriculture to waive eligibility requirements for the Emergency Food Assistance Program. He also asked the agriculture department to reconsider Pennsylvania’s request for temporary waivers to allow more food to be distributed at school feeding sites and food banks; and to be flexible and change its interpretation of recent changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“It is inhumane to consider that Pennsylvanians who are doing the responsible thing by staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities would go hungry because of USDA’s limiting interpretations and refusal to cut bureaucratic red tape during a national crisis,” he stated in a news release.

Tom Yakopin, owner of West Penn Life and Health Inc., provided pizza for doctors, nurses and staff at Washington Health System – Washington hospital Thursday to thank them for risking their own safety to treat COVID-19 patients. Other local businesses also joined in to donate food and supplies. For more details, see page A3.

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Prison Board chairman: Jail inmate, staffer tested for COVID-19

Update: Commissioners have since learned the test results were both negative. 

A Washington County jail inmate was tested for the novel coronavirus, and while officials wait for the results of the test, the inmate has been isolated inside a negative-pressure room inside the facility.

Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan, who is also chairman of the Washington County Prison Board, said a member of the corrections facility staff was also awaiting results from a test for COVID-19.

Irey Vaughan said she was told it might take five to seven days for test results to arrive.

A woman who got in touch with the Observer-Reporter had spoken with her children’s father, who is an inmate at the jail. He told her he asked to be tested for the new coronavirus but was rebuffed.

She described his symptoms as shortness of breath, cough and a migraine, and said she was told that other inmates had made similar requests for a COVID-19 test without receiving one.

Warden Edward Strawn relayed an inquiry from the newspaper to Irey Vaughan, who said, “The medical community has strict guidelines for testing. We are presenting for testing those who meet that criteria.”

The population of the Washington County jail, which was 351 as of a prison board meeting March 18, had decreased to 274 as of Monday, Strawn wrote in an email. Inmates charged with non-violent offenses and those with alternative sentences were being sent home with electronic monitors, commonly known as ankle bracelets.

There are “a number” of other Washington County employees whose jobs are outside the jail who have been tested for the novel coronavirus, but reporting the results of the test to the employer is not required, Irey Vaughan said.

“We have received no information about a positive test,” she continued.

According to the provisions of Pennsylvania’s 1955 Disease Prevention and Control Act, the state Department of Health is required to maintain confidentiality of reports and records.

The 11-page law indicates the state “shall be responsible for the prevention and control of communicable and non-communicable disease in any municipality which is not served by a local board or department of health.” Most of the counties in Pennsylvania, therefore, rely on the state Department of Health rather than one of their own.

In the absence of its own health department, Washington County would not, in the middle of a pandemic, be able to set one up quickly enough to be able to handle the coronavirus situation.

Irey Vaughan said if the county’s population increases in the 2020 U.S. Census to the point that Washington become a third-class county, it may have to institute its own health department.

Counties that have health departments are Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia. Municipal health departments are found in Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York.

“I do feel the state has put our residents at greater risks by withholding information,” Irey Vaughan opined. “All they need to say is an (affected) individual works in this municipality and lives in this municipality.”

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WHS announces layoffs amid COVID-19 outbreak

Citing a decline in revenue and less need for patient services because of measures taken in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington Health System said Thursday that it was laying off staff while several of its departments and facilities were temporarily closed.

The health system – whose facilities include Washington Hospital and the WHS Greene hospital in Waynesburg – said it had started carrying out voluntary and mandatory layoffs for staff in the affected departments starting on Wednesday.

It was unclear how many people that meant. The layoffs come at a time when an outbreak of the coronavirus could bring more patients to WHS’s facilities for treatment, if the number of cases in the region continues to climb.

Last week, the hospital postponed elective surgical and diagnostic procedures and closed some outpatient centers as a result of a mandate from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office. WHS said this week it was extending those closures until April 11 at earliest.

Staff in those departments would be laid off while the departments remain inactive but would receive employee benefits while they weren’t working.

“Due to these service changes and the stay-at-home order in place throughout our service area, Washington Health System has seen a drastic decrease in in-patient, emergency department and outpatient service utilization at all of our hospitals and physician offices,” the system said in a statement. “During this time, we have been methodically preparing our patient care services and direct ancillary departments for what may be a rapidly increasing number of patients afflicted with the COVID-19 virus.”

The health care nonprofit also said that direct-care providers and support staff from departments that are seeing a decline in patient volume were being cross-trained to work on other units, “to ensure that sufficient staff is ready and able to care for what may be a sudden increased volume of patients as the virus continues to impact the community.”

System officials said they intend to “return to normal” as soon as Wolf’s office gives the go-ahead. But with less revenue coming in, they said they couldn’t afford to keep serving “a small fraction” of the normal patient load with typical staffing levels.

“We must conserve where we can now so that it is there in the weeks to come allowing WHS the ability to be here for our patients and communities in the future,” they added.

W.Va. nursing home with 28 virus cases a 'horror story'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia nursing home described as the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus caseload now has 28 positive cases as containment measures continue, officials said Thursday.

Sundale nursing home medical director Carl Shrader said 20 residents and eight staffers at the Morgantown facility have the virus, with four tests pending after an aggressive effort to screen nearly everyone at the center.

“What’s on all our minds is containing it where we have it and not letting it rage on if possible,” he told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

Shrader has said Sundale is “ ground zero ” for the virus in West Virginia. State officials reported at least 51 positive cases as of Wednesday night, with the largest number in Monongalia County where the nursing home is located.

Gov. Jim Justice described it another way.

“It is the horror story that we absolutely didn’t want to have happen, at least from a nursing home standpoint because that’s a place, you know, that our elderly are at for sure,” Justice said at a news conference Thursday.

Testing remains limited, meaning most people now spreading the highly contagious virus may not know they have been infected, and state health officials have admitted their count lags behind the actual total as results pour in from counties around the state. West Virginia has yet to report a death from the coronavirus.

Isolation measures are in place throughout the nursing home, with the facility receiving donations of testing equipment and safety gear since the first case emerged Sunday. The state’s National Guard is also assisting in the effort.

“I think we’re all feeling tired. It’s been a process, we’ve had very long days but everyone’s staying positive and realizes this is something we have to accomplish,” Shrader said, adding that he and others have been fielding calls from worried family members who have been barred from visiting the facility.

Justice, a Republican, has repeatedly warned of the virus’s potential damage in a state where about 20% of the population is 65 or older and a high percentage of people have existing health problems. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that West Virginia has the nation’s highest percentage of adults at risk of developing serious illnesses from the virus.

A statewide stay-home order that directed all nonessential businesses to close went into effect Tuesday night, intensifying previous moves by Justice, who has ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, casinos, gyms, health clubs, recreation centers, barbershops, nail salons and hair salons.

Separately, Kanawha County health officials said a resident of the Brookdale Charleston Gardens assisted living center tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday morning. Officials said they will test the facility’s roughly 81 other residents.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the overwhelming majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.


Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.